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Review - Broadway Originals & The Master Builder

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Three years ago I named D'Jamin Bartlett's performance of "The Miller's Son" at BroadwayWorld's Standing Ovations IV concert, thirty-two years after she introduced the song in A Little Night Music, as one of my most memorable theatre moments of 2005. I may have to put her back on the list for 2008. At Sunday afternoon's Broadway Originals concert, the final entry of Town Hall's 4th Annual Broadway Cabaret Festival, Bartlett once again - in the original key - completely floored a New York audience with her rapid-fire deliver of Stephen Sondheim's patter combined with sterling vocals conveying an intensely cerebral sexuality. Called out to take a bow, she seemed sincerely surprised and overwhelmed at the cheers of the crowd.

With all due respect to Christmas, the opening of the baseball season and the day they tune the piano at Marie's Crisis, Broadway Originals Sunday is fast becoming my most wonderful time of the year. Once again Scott Siegel has assembled an exciting collection of musical theatre pros to reprise songs they introduced in roles they originated or played in the first cast of a Broadway revival. For many of them, the songs they introduced are far better known than they are, but the star quality they still possess is undeniable.

As usual, it was the senior members of the cast who stole the show, with Jerry Lanning's smooth baritone beautifully embracing Mame's "My Best Girl," Karen Morrow belting to the back row swinging the title song of I Had A Ball and Rita Gardner, the original Louisa in The Fantasticks (exceptions for a great Off-Broadway show are occasionally allowed) sweetly singing "They Were You," with a lovely, controlled soprano vibrato. Joan Copeland, who starred in the 1977 revival of Pal Joey, gave an impish rendering of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and the daffy Pamela Myers once again brought to mind Gotham's whirling cacophony with Company's "Another Hundred People."

Youthful stars of more recent productions were also well represented. Alli Mauzey, so funny in last season's Cry-Baby, once again gave her special touch to the Patsy Cline spoof, "Screw Loose"; a song that, according to Siegel, John Waters wants to be sung at his funeral. Bobby Steggert made a solo out of his 110 In The Shade duet, "Little Red Hat" with catchy exuberance and though Michael Arden didn't exactly introduce Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" to the nation when he sang it in The Times They Are A-Changin', his fine, detailed phrasing brings out colors that make his interpretation unique.

The ages in between contained a flurry of terrific talent. Lucie Arnaz got the show started joyously, disco dancing to "They're Playing My Song." Gary Beach sang a mad arrangement that combined "Be My Guest," "Keep It Gay" and "La Cage aux Folles," quickly switching from song to song to song like he was Jekyll, Hyde and Lucia di Lammermoor. And speaking of Jekyll & Hyde, Bob Cuccioli was on hand to lend his great dramatic flair to "The Is The Moment" and Cheryl Freeman rocked out the house as the Acid Queen from The Who's Tommy.

Stephen Mo Hanan, carrying a bag of kitty litter on stage ("Just in case.") was just charming in his Cats role as "Gus, The Theatre Cat," as was Terri White, feisty as ever with Barnum's "Thank God I'm Old," and Kerry Butler gently dreaming of "Somewhere That's Green." Chuck Cooper, whose deep, rich vocals can captivate an audience with solemn dramatics, relived the day John F. Kennedy was shot from an unusual perspective with "The Bus Aria" from Caroline, Or Change. Liz Callaway, one of musical theatre's great lyric interpreters, brought out vivid storytelling colors in "Alfie," as she did in The Look Of Love. The only duet of the day had Alice Ripley and Alan Campbell sounding beautiful and looking delighted to be reunited for Sunset Blvd's "Too Much In Love To Care."

Scott Siegel introduced each performance with his usual insight and humor, making Broadway Originals the liveliest museum in town.

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Let me start this one by commending James Naughton, a bona fide name-above-the-title Broadway star better known for playing hard-boiled musical comedy leading men than for tackling Ibsen drama, for stretching his acting muscles as he attaches his popular name to the non-profit Irish Repertory Theatre's premiere production of Frank McGuinness' new translation of The Master Builder. That said, I must sadly report that, as of last Tuesday's press performance, the actor hasn't seemed to have grasped any kind of definite interpretation of the role.

Naughton plays an 1892 version of what they call a "starchitect" nowadays; though this one, Halvard Solness, is a serial adulterer who got to the top by trampling on others. His rich, melodic voice is put to good use to convey a captivating authority, but there is little depth given to the words he speaks. His performance lacks detail and focus as he frequently mutters lines to the floor and accents emotions with perfunctory arm motions. Part of the problem could be director Ciaran O'Reilly's static staging that leaves actors staying put for long periods as they plow through wordy scenes. For a play about a heartless man looking back at a time when his ideals could inspire the imagination of a 12-year-old girl, the three acts proceed rather passionlessly.

That 12-year-old girl, Hilde (Charlotte Parry), shows up ten years later wanting Solness to make good on a promise he made the day he dedicated one of his better works in her home town - to one day make her a princess and build her a kingdom. While the character's costumes (by Linda Fisher) and her unusual entrance from Eugene Lee's set suggests Hilde to be an angelic figure, Parry's languidly sweet portrayal makes little impact as the obsessive temptress (stalker) who the aging architect is more than willing to immediately welcome into his life. Much more effective are Kristin Griffith as his put upon wife, Herb Foster as his former mentor and now unappreciated employee, and Letitia Lange as his mousey, idolizing clerical worker.

Fisher's costumes nicely define the class distinction between the characters and though Lee's setting of Solness' studio works very well for the first two acts, the third, taking place outdoors, is played in front of all its tables and chairs stacked up in piles. While I'm sure there was an artistic intention behind that move, it looks more like there wasn't room to store them backstage.


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